After 17 acclaimed novels, Lee Smith changes gear to write Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, a graceful, humorous book about growing up in a small coal town in Virginia in the 1950s.
Growing up in Grundy, Va., touched you so profoundly that it continues to influence your fiction. Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?
Sure. For me, the definition of any regional writing is, could a particular work of fiction have taken place anywhere else? If the answer is no, you’ve got a world of regional literature—think Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, set in Maine; Alice Munro’s Canadian stories; or James Joyce’s Dublin, among others. Place is the most important element of my fiction, and my particular place is the Appalachian South, where I grew up and first heard language. Place determines who my characters are, how they live, what they believe and think, how they speak—often determining the narrative voice and tone of the whole novel. I grew up in a storytelling mountain family so I’m more of a storyteller than a “writerly” writer.
Your parents both suffered from bipolar disorder, which you observed as a child. Did this make you a better writer?
I don’t know if it made me a better writer, but it certainly made me a watchful child, alert to nuance and change—a child who sometimes had to take on certain responsibilities before her time. This is true of only children too, and I was also one of those.
You write beautifully about scattering the ashes of your son Josh. Is this the first time you’ve written about his death?
“Goodbye to the Sunset Man” is a very emotional essay [in Dimestore], because I wrote the first draft immediately after we scattered Josh’s ashes from a vintage schooner’s sunset cruise in early 2004. Josh loved Key West and always came [to Florida] with us when he was well enough. Now I have expanded the essay to talk about schizophrenia in general: its symptoms, onset, and treatments; its effect upon parents such as ourselves, and on entire families.
You quote Anne Tyler in the book: “I write because I want more than one life.” How has this idea affected you as a writer and in your personal life?
Actually, I have spent most of my working life as an English teacher with several children to raise—not much time for exotic travel or adventures. Once I had used up my own childhood and adolescence as a subject for my fiction, I was in trouble: what else to write about? Using oral history and research, I have been able to write about serpent handlers, beauticians, whores, Civil War soldiers, and country music singers—lots of people I will never be. It has been the greatest privilege and pleasure in the world.